08 July 2010
By M Ramya
IIT Tests System That Uses Cellphones To Collate Data On Outbreaks
Diseases know no borders and it is essential for health officials to identify outbreaks immediately to curb their spread. Researchers at IIT Madras’ Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI) have tested a biosurveillance programme that uses modern technology to help health officials get updates on disease outbreaks immediately.
“Health workers in public health centres and health sub–centres submit weekly reports on patients through a paper–based system to officials in the district health departments. We noted that state–level officials at the directorate of public health and preventive medicine received the reports too late. This led to diseases like chikungunya going unnoticed until several persons were affected,”said RTBI senior project officer Dr M Ganesan.
In July 2008, researchers from IIT–M’s RTBI, in collaboration with the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore and LIRNEasia, an ICT policy and regulation think tank across the Asia–Pacific region, began a pilot project to test the biosurveillance system in Tirupattur block of Sivaganga district. “We chose Sivaganga because it is a backward district,”said vice–president of RTBI exploratory initiatives Suma Prashant.
Encouraged by the reach of mobile telephony, the researchers used mobile phones to collect data. A customised software–mHealth Survey application–was loaded onto base model mobile phones with GPRS. Nurses monitoring patients in four PHCs and 24 HSCs in the district fed in data such as patient’s gender, age, symptoms and the location.
Information was then sent to a central database, which analysed the data through the T–Cube Web Interface (TCWI) software and mapped the disease occurrence, number of people affected and the location. “The software pops up an alert window that can tell us when the disease cropped up, on which date the numbers peaked, and when it was subdued,”said professor Artur Dubrawski, who directs the Auton Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, which developed the TCWI.
The data is disseminated to the relevant authorities through the Sahana Messaging and Alerting Module. The project was guided by Dr K Vijay Raghavan, director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences.
“We are happy with the results. Our studies have shown that the time time taken to feed data through the mHealth Survey is faster than the paper–based system and when scaled up will also be more cost–effective. We are focussing on finetuning the application, and extending it to other areas, and also to other fields like the detection of crop diseases,”said RTBI board chairman Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala. Sector health nurse S Kaliammal confirms that this is faster than the present paper–based system.
Components involved in the Real Time Biosurveillance Program
- Health care providers at public health centres are told to feed in patient health data using a customised application called mHealthSurvey in a cellphone
- The data is sent to a central server and analysed by a software called T–Cube Web Interface, which maps occurrence, number of people affected and location. It prepares graphs and charts to show spread of the disease
- This is disseminated to health authorities through the Sahana Messaging and Alerting Situational Awareness, so that appropriate steps can be taken